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Conscientious objection in Finland

Kaj Raninen

Finland still maintains a very extensive conscription system. About 80% of all male Finnish citizens perform military service, a bit more than 10 % are exempted from service and about 7 % apply for conscientious objection.

Exemption may only be granted for medical reasons. Members of the Jehova's Witnesses, however, are an exception: they are exempted from all service in peace time based on a separate law, which came into force in 1987. The inhabitants of Ahvananmaa islands (an autonomous, demilitarized area belonging to Finland, also known as Åland islands) are the other exempted group.

Substitute service

Finland introduced a law on conscientious objection and a substitute service in 1931, and with the exemption of the period of Second World War it existed ever since. The then existing - as well as the current - Civilian Service Act guaranteed the right to consientious objection only in peace time. The number of people performing substitute service stayed at a relatively low level until the end of the 80's. On average only 800 conscripts applied annually. In the early 90's the number started to grow rapidly and since the mid-90's it has stabilised at 2500 per year.

The current Civilian Service Act came into force in the beginning of 1992. According to the law every conscript may, after he has taken part in enrollment, apply for conscientious objection at any time before or during military service. The applicant must declare that serious religious or ethical reasons of conscience prohibits him to serve in army, but this conviction is not "examined" at all and every application is accepted automatically. If the application is made while the applicant is performing military service, he must be discharged immediately.

Substitute service lasts 395 days, which is twice as long as the most common military service (lasting 180 days). It is organized by the Ministry of Labour. Hospitals, administrative offices, homes for the elderly, kindergardens, schools, universities and cultural institutions are among the most common service places. It is also possible to perform substitute service in some private non-profit organisations accepted by the Ministry of Labour. During the service the CO is entitled to daily allowance, free accomodation, food and health care, paid by the service place, although in practice these are not always realised.

Besides the punitive length of substitute service and the restriction of the right to conscientious objection only to peace time, there are many practical problems inherent in the Finnish substitute service system, which are in the first place consequences of the poor organisation of substitute service. As a consequence of the growing number of COs there is a lack of service places and many of those which exist neglect their legal obligations by, for example, refusing to give free accomodation to those serving in their institution.

The Finnish substitute service is not "integrated" as effectively as in some other countries. Many political decision-makers see it rather as a "necessary evil" which is a threath to the military than as a source of cheap labour, or even something positive. The basic reason is probably the historically high social appreciation of the military and the extensive conscription system.

As a concequence it is very difficult to achieve the acceptance of any improvement of the civilian service act: since 1998 the Finnish Parliament has voted on the reduction of the substitute service period twice, but it has always been rejected.

Total objection

Leaving the Jehova's Witnesses aside, there were very few total objectors in Finland until the mid 80's, at most a few annually. The total objector movement arose at the end of the 80's as a protest against the Civilian Service Act, which came into force in 1987 and lenghtened the service period to 480 days. Between 1987-91 over 100 Finnish conscripts refused to do either military or substitute service. They were "conditional total objectors", their protest was focused on the defects of this law.

After the current Civilian Service Act took effect in 1992, total objection became more infrequent although it never disappered, and the arguments of total objectors changed too. More and more total objectors announced their opposition to the entire conscription system as such, not solely to abuses of the Civilian Service Act, and refused to serve within the limits of conscription in any case.

In the late 90's total objection became more common again. In 1999 a total of 53 total obejectors announced their refusal to the authorities, and 2002 the number was already 76, which is the highest number since Jehova's Witnesses have been exempted. This growth is partially explained by the aggravation of problems within the substitute service system (the service period of conscripts was shortened in 1998, but the substitute service period has remained unchanged) but not entirely: the "unconditional" total objection which protests against the conscription system as such seems to be growing noticeably too.

Total objectors are senteced to unconditional prison sentences. The length of the prison sentence is derived from a simple formula: it is half of the unserved time counted as a substitute service time. If a total objector has not done any service before his refusal, his sentence will be 197 days. The prison sentences of total objectors are normally executed in open prisons, where there is a possiblity to work or study outside the prison on weekdays. However, sometimes total objectors have been transferred to closed prisons, where they have to serve their sentence or part of it literally behind bars. Since November 1999 Amnesty International has adopted 49 Finnish total objectors as prisoners of consciousness, because it regards the length of Finnish civilian service as punitive.

There have also been a few cases where a total objector has also refused to take part in enrollment, which takes place in the year the conscript turns 18 years. However, according to Finnish legislation, total objection will be recognised only after the conscript has been enrolled and declared fit for service. In this cases the total objector receives a fine and a new order to to enroll. If he still refuses to go, he will be fined again. This "vicious circle" may go on for years.

Kaj Raninen is an activist with the Union of Conscientious Objectors Finland